Category Archives: energy

Tidalpunk Energy – Offshore Wind in the US

Greater Gabbard Wind Farm in the UK – photo by SSE via a CC BY-ND 2.0 license

Offshore wind is gearing up in the United States. The federal government has announced a goal of 30GW of offshore wind generation by 2030 and 110GW by 2050. For reference, the current largest wind turbine available generates 15MW, so it would take 2,000 of these turbines to reach the 2030 goal if that were the only turbine type used.

One bottleneck for getting these projects started is Wind Turbine Installation Vessels (WTIVs). The first European offshore wind installations started in the 90s, but existing European ships can’t be used because of the Jones Act which stipulates that vessels operating in US seas must be built, owned, and operated by US citizens or corporations. Dominion Energy’s Charybdis WTIV is under construction in New Orleans and should be operational in 2023.

Charybdis will first get to work here in Virginia building the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind Project. Hampton Roads, Virginia has been billing itself as a hub for the offshore wind turbine industry. There’s a long history of maritime industry on the Virginia coast, so it’s great to see these communities able to transition with the winds of change.

The Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind Project isn’t the only offshore wind farm to be in development here in the US. After the failure of the Cape Wind Project in Massachussetts, offshore wind’s future was murky in the US. However, Maine appears to be the only state explicitly rejecting offshore wind, with new projects being planned on both coasts including New Jersey and California.

A pile of one dollar bills spread across the frame.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As mentioned previously, one problem I see with a lot of developments in tidalpunk-related tech is that so much of it is big money, high technology equipment that is difficult to build and procure without large governments and corporations. For instance, Dominion Energy has had a stranglehold on the state legislature in Virginia for decades due to their shady business and political practices. Offshore wind offers a big opportunity for cutting carbon emissions in the grid, but I’m wary of the lack of community control over these generation resources.

As I live in the US, this blog tends toward developments here. Do you have offshore wind in your area? Let us know about it in the comments!


This is Part 3 in our feature on tidalpunk for August. See Part 1: Can Maritime Shipping Go Tidalpunk?, Part 2: Tidalpunk Food – Fishing and Farming the Sea, and Part 4: Plastics – A Tidalpunk Antagonist.

Can Maritime Shipping Go Tidalpunk?

A cargo ship sails down a channel next to a tug boat. A series of cranes dot the sides and background.
Photo by Martin Damboldt on Pexels.com

Since summertime is beach time here in Virginia, this month we’ll be taking a look at some developments toward our tidalpunk future. Today, we’ll be looking at how the maritime shipping industry is working to clean up its act.

While at sea, the majority of cargo ships use high sulfur fuel oil, the most polluting fuel in use today. With a global target to reduce maritime shipping emissions by half by 2050, however, the shipping industry is looking at its biggest change since switching from coal to diesel 100 years ago. While diesel won’t be going away soon, a mix of new and old technologies are receiving interest to replace fossil fuels in shipping.

The most exciting development in my mind, is the interest in bringing back sailing vessels for cargo transport. While a handful of clippers are still operating as cargo vessels, new ships in development like the EcoClipper500 could pave the way for a retro-futuristic tidalpunk future. As we’ve discussed before, the best way to clean up shipping emissions would be to exercise the first R and reduce the amount of stuff being shipped around the world in the first place. A combination of sailing vessels and distributed manufacturing of goods could make a big difference in carbon emissions and material waste.

A sailing ship with a white hull sails along a mountainous background. It has three large masts that are only partially rigged, presumably to keep speeds low for maneuverability.
Photo by Inge Wallumru00f8d on Pexels.com

In port, those diesel fumes can add up to some gnarly local air pollution for these communities. Oslo, Norway intends to be the world’s first zero emission port by investing in electrification of ferries and installing shore power so visiting boats can cut their engines while docked. Cleaning up the air is good for humans and wildlife that live near these industrial hubs, so cleaning up ports is an important piece of environmental justice work. Other ports are cleaning up their acts around the world including Los Angeles, Auckland, and Valencia showing this trend isn’t isolated to Scandinavia.

Despite their questionable environmental cred, cargo ships can still be a less carbon intensive option for long passenger journeys when compared to flying. According to Will Vibert, a cargo ship passenger, they can also feel surprisingly luxurious. “As I soon came to understand, the luxury of being at sea is not about fine food or a plush mattress; rather, life at sea itself – the tranquil pace and intoxicating sense of adventure – is the true luxury.” Later in the article they relate a similar luxury in the time-consuming, but languid process of North American train travel as I have experienced myself.

Do you have any thoughts regarding the maritime shipping industry and tidalpunk? Have you seen any cool initiatives at a port near you? Let us know in the comments below!


This is Part 1 in our feature on tidalpunk for August. See Part 2: Tidalpunk Food – Fishing and Farming the Sea, Part 3: Tidalpunk Energy – Offshore Wind in the US, and Part 4: Plastics – A Tidalpunk Antagonist.

Why Solarpunk Matters

A flag with split diagonally between green on the upper left and black on the lower right. An 8-rayed sun symbol is overlayed at the center with a black upper left and green lower right.
One of many solarpunk flags

As we enter a new decade, it can be hard to remain upbeat about the future. While I previously addressed some of the things I think define solarpunk, I think the most crucial piece is hope. I won’t get into the distinctions between hopepunk, solarpunk, and their related subgenres (tidalpunk, lunarpunk, etc.), but suffice it to say, in the face of the acceleration of the climate crisis, the pandemic, and decades of dystopian stories in fiction, it’s time for some positive possible futures.

Dystopias have their place in fiction warning against the perils of certain trends in society or potentially dangerous technologies. They can be great foils to techno-optimism, but when all you get are dystopias, it can become difficult to imagine your way out of a crisis. This is no more apparent than what is happening with the current climate crisis.

After decades of dismissal or denial, people are waking up to the fact that the carbon has hit the fan and we don’t have a lot of time left to act if we want to avoid the worst effects of global warming. We’re at a decision point, and after only hearing depressing news from the media and watching movies based on dystopian futures like the Hunger Games or Handmaid’s Tale, it’s no wonder that many are ready to just give up trying to fight what feels like an inexorable foe.

Now, more than ever, we need stories that paint a positive future. People have been bludgeoned to numbness by threats of rising sea levels, increasingly unpredictable weather, and the extinction of many of the other species on the planet. We need to show people that there is hope for the future and that we can still beat this thing. Is it too late for some species? Yes. We’re not going to come out of this unscathed, but if we don’t start acting now we might not come out of the other side at all.

Positive news about efforts in various parts of the world that are actually moving the needle on carbon emissions and other environmental issues is critical. Stories that show how the future could be so much better with clean energy and equitable distribution of materials is a much easier sell than saying certain behaviors or items should be banned. “Theft of Enjoyment” featured as the boogeyman when Republicans incorrectly claimed that the Green New Deal would make hamburgers illegal. As icky as advertising can be, only fitness companies make money by telling people what they shouldn’t have. Showing how much better our possible futures could be will have people running toward something instead of fighting tooth and nail to preserve what they already have, even if it isn’t good for them.

Cover of the Sunvault solarpunk anthology. The full title says SUNVAULT: Stories of solarpunk and eco-speculation and it is set on a colorful picture of a city with a river and lots of vegetation.
Sunvault – A solarpunk anthology

As the near future foil to cyberpunk, solarpunk is here to show us the world we want to have, not the one we’re afraid is coming. Does that mean that solarpunk is free of conflict or struggle? No. Solarpunk isn’t a perfect world, but it is a better, more equitable one. Solarpunk is giving people something worth fighting for which is much more powerful than asking for people to fight against something. In the face of the climate emergency, it can be easy to get overwhelmed, but solarpunk is what keeps me from giving up in the face of imposing odds. As Miguel de Cervantes said, “Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!

How do you maintain your mental health in the face of climate catastrophe? Has solarpunk helped you weather the storm to your psyche as it has me? Let us know below.


Smart(er) switch

A white touch switch mounted next to a traditional white toggle switch.
My new(ish) living room smart switch

I bought a smart switch to help with the somewhat weird layout of our living room at the time. I had intended to reflash it with Open Source Software so I wasn’t sending data to some nameless company with remote servers that would render my switch useless if I lost connection to them. I had used the Tasmota firmware on another cord-based switch before and it proved simple and reliable.

There are a handful of different chips in these inexpensive smart wall switches. Some use the maker-favorite ESP chip, and others use a chip from a company called Tuya. The ESPs are usually easy enough to reflash after adding a programming header, but the Tuya chips require connecting directly to the pins on the chip. Someone designed a 3d printed jig to help with this, but I wasn’t able to print one that was usable which led to the long break between purchase and use.

In December, I found the switch again and decided to give it another go. I found that there was now a tool called Tuya Convert that allows you to change the firmware over your home WiFi network. With things approximately 1000x simpler, I was able to get the switch working with the Tasmota firmware in just an evening.

A screenshot of the “timers” part of the Tasmota firmware

The firmware includes an option to turn the light on or off at a particular time, including a set number of minutes before or after sunrise/sunset. The device does need a little extra configuration to know its time and location, but it has been working reliably since the initial setup.

One of the reasons I prefer switches to smart bulbs is that everyone already knows how to use a wall switch. When I first installed the firmware, the physical switch function didn’t work, so I had to ask Alexa to turn it on or off instead of being able to do it myself. After some digging around on the Tasmota list of supported devices, I got it working by modifying a profile from a switch that was actually supported. I strongly support going with a supported switch to save yourself the headache. I saw they even had some options now with Tasmota from the factory, which is probably the best option. As the project is Open Source, I was able to suggest an update to the database with the settings I found working for this particular switch in case anyone comes across it again in the future.

I’m happy with the switch since I can turn it on or off from other parts of the house or turn the light on or off while I’ve got my hands full. Our kitchen and living room are attached, so it’s especially helpful when I’m cooking or doing dishes.

Do you have any smart appliances or lighting in your home? Do you find it helpful, or are smart IOT gadgets just something that’s unnecessary to solarpunk life? Let us know below!

Solarpunk News Roundup – October 2020

Photo by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels.com

As we’re closing out October, I thought I’d try a new feature, a monthly news roundup of interesting articles I found on the internet. These might be actual news from the month or just articles that were new to me about environmental justice, energy, or other solarpunk themes.

This is an older article, and I’ve referenced in before, but it bears repeating here. Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson wrote in June about how “Racism derails our attempts to save the planet.” It’s an excellent explanation of how confronting racism is a necessary component of fighting climate change.

Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan climate activist, was interviewed by euronews and discussed how “the global south is not on the front page, but it is on the front line” of climate change. It’s a good look at climate activism from a different lens than the US or eurocentric viewpoint.

Brand new research has resulted in the world’s first room temperature superconductor! Before you jump for joy though, it requires extremely high pressures to make and operate the material. It is a promising step forward toward lossless electrical transmission and storage, however.

A new fusion plant design has been announced by AL_A and General Fusion. It looks to use a hydraulic hammer to compress hydrogen plasma inside a sphere of molten metal to initiate the fusion process.

Vox’s David Robert’s continues his in-depth coverage of the energy sector with a deep dive on geothermal power and its potential as an always-on baseload for renewable power. While I think we should keep our current nuclear plants running as long as possible to keep carbon emissions down, transitioning baseload power to geothermal makes so much sense.

Grist has put together a list of no regrets changes the US could make to change it from a climate laggard to a climate leader. These include electrifying everything, building more robust public transit, and investing in climate resilience programs.

As a damper on clean energy progress, Investigate West and Grist have recently uncovered suppression of research from the US Department of Energy by the current administration. If we want to move forward on climate action, we can’t be ignoring or silencing researchers. I realize y’all already know this, but it’s still some impressive reporting and I thought you might find it interesting.

A new study shows that Just 10% of Covid Recovery Funds could be enough to meet the Paris Climate Accord goals. This is a promising rebuttal to the common refrain that climate action costs too much.

New research indicates the “Great Dying,” the biggest extinction event in Earth’s history, was caused by an increase in atmospheric CO2 from volcanic activity. Ocean acidification, the bane of tidalpunks, and global warming resulted in the death of most of the life on Earth at the time. It is of note that there was more CO2 generated by the volcanic activity, a Siberian supervolcano, than that from anthropogenic causes in our current time. It does provide a sobering reminder that our levels of CO2 must be carefully managed.

The Harvard Business Review has and article from 2018 discussing the advantages of a six hour workday vs the eight hour day that is now common in the United States.

Have you seen any interesting articles related to solarpunk lately? Let us know below!

What I’ve Been Reading – Summer 2020

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Hey all, just thought I’d do a quick post about some of the books I read this summer since we’re just passing the Fall Equinox. Today, I’m partway through Everything Change: An Anthology of Climate Fiction from Arizona State University. At this point I’ve read several different explicitly solarpunk anthologies, and I think the main difference from cli-fi (climate science fiction) is that solarpunk takes an optimistic tact. This anthology seems like a mixed bag of optimistic and dystopian visions of the future. I think it’s good to keep in mind that things could go badly, but I find I’m dwelling in negative outcomes enough to really want a whole lot of that in my fiction.

Some of the other books I finished recently were Rewiring America by Saul Griffith, Sam Calisch, and Laura Fraser, Walkaway by Cory Doctorow, and Altered Traits by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson.

I reviewed Rewiring America on the blog, if you want a more in-depth look at it. In short, it’s a detailed plan on how to decarbonize the vast majority of the US economy by 2035. I think it would make a good subset of the Green New Deal, if we ever get one, but it largely sidesteps issues of environmental justice and corporate concentration in favor of being politically palatable.

I’m hoping to write a piece about Walkaway soon, but I think the most succinct way to describe it is as Atlas Shrugged but written by someone who has discovered that capitalism and state-based communism are both bad news. Shrugging and going walkaway both are in response to a government and society that are hostile to the protagonists, leaving them the option to opt out of the default society. For those of you who have read Atlas Shrugged, there is no 100 page philosophical speech or significant narrative left turn in the back third of Walkaway. The time jumps between sections of the book were queued well, so I wasn’t left confused like I have been in some books that used this technique.

Altered Traits was recommended to me since I’ve been trying (and mostly failing) to build a habit of meditating. It details the scientific research into meditation and the effects it has on the brain. As someone with a scientific background, it’s always nice to see that there are measurable data to back up the anecdotal evidence that a particular thing is beneficial. Biological systems tend to be messy, so there are bigger error bars than you might see in physics, but the trends back up the general consensus that more meditative practice means more mental health benefits. Some of the effects even start kicking in pretty early for some practices. The book did a great job of describing how different types of meditation exercise different parts of your brain, so now I have a better idea of what kind of meditation to do if I want to boost concentration or combat negative feelings associated with depression. If you are interested in meditation or neurology, I’d definitely recommend giving it a read.

On the audiobook front, I have been relistening to The Stormlight Archive books by Brandon Sanderson. The fourth book in the series, Rhythm of War is coming out in November, so it’s a good time to catch up on what’s happened so far. These books are epic fantasy, so the first three clock in at 42, 48, and 55 hours of audio! I also was listening along with the Year of Dresden reread this year, and the newest book, Battle Ground, just came out on Tuesday! The Dresden Files is urban fantasy if you haven’t run across it before, so it’s a little lighter fare than the doorstoppers Sanderson writes. If you’re looking for a noire-esque wizard detective trying to get by in the modern world, you should give them a try!

If you want to get a free audiobook, I did recently get a referral code for Libro.fm, which is an audiobook merchant that works with local bookstores so they aren’t cut out of the audiobook market like they are with Audible. If you want to support Cory Doctorow’s work to fight DRM and Audible’s overwhelming market power in the audiobook industry, I suggest you checkout the Kickstarter for his upcoming book, Attack Surface. The Kickstarter ends on Thursday, October 8, 2020 at midnight.

What have you been reading/listening to lately? Anything that seemed particularly solarpunk, or just some good old fashioned escapism?


FYI – There are some affiliate links in the article there, so I may get a small referral fee if you purchase something through them.

Rewiring America – A review

Saul Griffith wants to point out something that we in the science and engineering community have known for awhile: we already have the technology to solve climate change, we just lack the political will. Griffith’s new book, Rewiring America, is a deep dive into one course of action that would eliminate most fossil fuels from the American economy by 2035 and save households bundles of cash in the process.

I started engineering school in 2005, and while there was a growing amount of research into alternative energy at the time, we already had a pretty good idea of what would be needed to transition our economy away from carbon-heavy resources: electrify everything. Fifteen years later, the costs of solar, wind, and electric vehicle technologies have fallen exponentially. The best time to start investing in electrifying everything was during the 70s oil crisis. The next best time is now. As atmospheric carbon concentrations grow, we need to accelerate our efforts to decarbonize. Griffith and OtherLab‘s extensive analysis of US energy distribution shows the gains that can be made quickly by electrification.

One thing often ignored by opponents of climate action, but thoroughly explored in Rewiring America, is that electric motors and generation systems have a much higher overall efficiency than systems dependent on fossil fuels. Just by switching our current lifestyle to all electric, our overall energy consumption would drop by half in the United States.

An old meme from The Onion

Most of my quibbles with this book are because I’m not the target audience of the book. I don’t need convincing that climate change is serious and that we have to do something about it. I’m incredulous about Griffith’s claims that we don’t have to change our lifestyle or his handwaving with regard to the availability of certain critical materials, but Griffith is trying to reach out to the people on the fence who’ve been told by deniers that climate change is either a hoax or is too expensive to tackle. These climate delayers are a bigger problem than climate deniers, since the vehement denial of climate change is coming from a very small segment of the population. Most people agree that there is a problem, but don’t want to take action because they don’t believe it will affect them personally. Griffith skirts around equity and monopoly power while pouring on a heavy coating of patriotism to appeal to this audience that is on the fence about taking action on climate change.

One of the least appealing parts of the book was the incessant call for a war effort and lauding American exceptionalism. Griffith certainly isn’t the first to use this language, but it is getting a little old, not just for me. The book is US-centric, with only occasional references to what could happen worldwide, but we’re also the only country with a major political party that denies the science of climate change. We need this book more than anyone else right now.

Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0
Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0

Most people want the same basic things, but in the current polarized political environment we don’t even speak the same language. I think Griffith is doing a good job of trying to bridge this gap by focusing on the no-compromises parts of the energy transition: cleaner air, quieter cities, and more comfortable living. As a solarpunk, I don’t think we can ignore the equity or the structural problems that lead to the climate crisis to begin with, but Griffith’s plan gives us a starting point to have an honest conversation about climate action.

Have you read Rewiring America? Do you think it has the potential to kick people off the sidelines of climate action?

Good news for tidalpunks

humpback whale in ocean

Photo by Andre Estevez on Pexels.com

The Guardian recently reported that according to scientists in Nature, if we take the right steps moving forward, we could have healthy, vibrant oceans again as early as the 2050s. Some bright points in ocean restoration that exhibit the resiliency of Mother Nature include humpback whale and sea otter populations that were once quite dire.

Some challenges that we still must overcome to find our tidalpunk future are overfishing, agricultural runoff, and ocean acidification due to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide. This year will be particularly challenging for life in the Gulf of Mexico given the increased rainfall expected once again in the Midwest United States which drives erosion and agricultural runoff. An increase in regenerative agriculture on the land, and sustainable fishing practices in the water would help greatly toward the goal of revitalizing our oceans.

A study from 2016 showed that protecting 30-40% of the world’s oceans from exploitation would provide a benefit not only for the creatures in the ocean, but also for the people who rely on fishing and tourism to make their living. By setting aside parts of the ocean for the wildlife that lives there, we ensure long-term viability of the ocean’s biodiversity. In 2018, the United Kingdom’s Environmental Minister became one of the first major political leaders to back the plan.

On a personal note, as a midwesterner, I’d never been to the ocean until I was twenty. Growing up in a place where the largest bodies of water were ponds and small streams, it was boggling to see the water stretch out beyond the horizon. All the different types of fish and birds that live along the shorelines here in Virginia are fascinating to watch, and the ocean waves themselves are mesmerizing. I feel a great respect for the ocean, and hope that we can help it recover from the damage caused by years of careless neglect.

Do you live near the ocean? Are there any programs in your area to help wildlife, aquatic or terrestrial? Let us know below!

Agile City Development

IMG_20200305_1234234

An apartment building in Charlottesville

Last month, I talked about how seeing the city as an ecosystem is an important element of urban planning. Treating every project that happens in the city as an isolated event doesn’t take into account possible interactions with other existing or future work. We can’t reasonably account for every interaction, but we should try to maximize the number of synergistic interactions and minimize unintended consequences.

 

agile-work-horizon-of-predictability

The Horizon of Predictability from Agile Advice

As a project grows larger and its timescale increases, it grows more difficult to predict its interactions with the surrounding environment. One way to keep projects within a “horizon of predictability” is to take “small bets,” as advised by Strong Towns, instead of always pursuing that next multi-million dollar development project.

If we take an Agile Development approach, then we can start with what identifying issues within a particular area, ranking them in order of impact, and selecting the one or two that would have the biggest impact that we could accomplish in a short time frame.

A city’s sidewalk network is one place we could apply this technique. In 2015, Charlottesville published it’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan. The plan identified major corridors for walking and biking in the city and prioritized areas in need of improvement. Looking at the 2019 update of the Master Plan, however, it becomes clear that there hasn’t been a lot of progress on most of these projects.

Where the sidewalk ends

Where the sidewalk ends

There are plenty of places where our sidewalks cut out for a few yards or even a few blocks. Pedestrians are forced to walk in the road or across someone’s lawn. This isn’t ideal, and it’s much worse if you need to find a route with a wheelchair or crutches. If we started by identifying areas where there is a lot of foot traffic, we might find places where a small investment in concrete could make great improvements to pedestrian safety.

The traditional approach to development in cities can result in incomplete buildings or infrastructure that are actually worse than if you hadn’t started the project at all. The obvious example of this for Charlottesville residents would be the Landmark/Dewberry Hotel on the downtown mall. Construction began shortly before the Great Recession hit, and ten years later, its partially completed skeleton still looms over the most expensive part of town.

I’d really like to see the city move toward small, incremental projects that slowly fix problems we see. This allows us to expend fewer resources at a given time toward solving a problem, as well as allowing us to test different approaches and course correct as we implement plans. One refrain I’ve heard several times since moving here is that the city has “analysis paralysis.” We expend millions of dollars toward study after study, but the citizens just don’t see anything come from it. People in city government then get frustrated when there’s a lack of engagement from the community. It’s hard to get buy-in when the past has shown that the city lacks follow through.

I think future work should include more small area plans that bring neighbors together to shape how their neighborhoods will look in the future. There should probably be some oversight to make sure that these small area plans are welcoming, not exclusionary, but people from the neighborhood will be closer to the ground truth of what small actions might create the biggest effects in people’s day-to-day life.

At the end of the day, we all want our communities to be a better place. By coming together and figuring out what small changes we can make, we can get started right away. We don’t need to wait on the next four year plan to make things better.

City Council held a work session on zoning, and city staff made recommendations on how to make it easier for residents to build Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) or split existing homes into duplexes, triplexes, or quadraplexes. These small changes to the existing zoning code are happening independently of the larger zoning rewrite that is part of the Comprehensive Planning process. These changes aren’t going to solve our housing crisis, but they will make a dent. This small zoning change to allow small increases in density by allowing more small development is the perfect example of how many small steps can add up to a big one.

I hope that this new City Council will be open to more small bets in the future. If they are, I think we’ll make progress more quickly by taking a lot of small steps than taking big steps that might not always land on solid ground.

Are there people in your town working on small bets with or without your local government? Let us know below!

Cities as ecosystems

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

Charlottesville City Zoning Map (c. 2009)

With the start of the new Comprehensive Plan here in Charlottesville, I’ve been thinking a lot about the big picture of the city. I’ve been involved with bicycle advocacy here in town for awhile now, and I’ve felt that was definitely something worth fighting for since cycling, walking, and other active forms of transportation benefit both the environment and human health. Also, when you look at bicycling in the US, you have a bimodal distribution of users — people who have to cycle and people who choose to ride. Bike advocates have traditionally been from the latter group due to middle class people having more spare time to be active in local politics.

The more I’ve worked in transportation, the more I see that we need to seek synergies when fighting for equitable, sustainable, solarpunk futures. Poverty and homelessness are often portrayed as the fault of the poor, the result of laziness or bad luck. The truth is that the systems built into our society and built environment put up barriers to certain groups of people that are easy to overlook from a privileged perspective. How can we start to see things as systems, and not a collection of isolated parts?

We have a template to draw from in nature. In a natural ecosystem, there is no waste, just an endless flow of energy and material from one organism to the next. What if we started to look at our cities as ecosystems? How could we build synergistic effects between parts of our built environment?

13714826875_1c9fed839b_k

Garden courtesy of cuprikorn

Take a city park as an example. In traditional design, you’d select a plot of land, stick some trees and grass there, and call it a day. You might go so far as to add some playground equipment if you were putting it in a residential area.

Approaching a park from an ecosystem perspective, however, would allow for a much more vibrant community experience. We have a park here in Charlottesville that isn’t reaching its full potential because while it borders two different neighborhoods, a busy street separates one neighborhood from the park. Parents don’t feel safe crossing with their kids, so they don’t go to the park. If we took the whole ecosystem into account, safe crossing to and from the park would have been an integral part of its design. As discussed extensively in The Nature Fix, exposure to nature is immensely beneficial for mental and physical health. Poor design has a tangible, detrimental effect on equity.

Taking things a step further, the green space of parks also affords an opportunity to work on sustainability. Charlottesville is in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and has an important role to play in reducing pollution that flows into the Bay. In addition, stormwater management is becoming an increasingly important aspect of urban design as climate change makes storms more variable and rainfall less predictable. As a way of integrating ecological density, we could add native plantings to encourage pollinators as well as rain gardens and permeable pavement for managing stormwater.

By taking some additional steps in the design phase of a project, we enhance the equity, sustainability, and beauty of the city all at once instead of requiring separate projects to achieve a less resilient and integrated design. The same approach could be used when approaching transportation or housing. Taking the system as a whole into account when making planning decisions will allow us to more carefully shepherd our resources and do the most good with our limited community resources.

What opportunities for ecological systems thinking are there in your area? Let us know below!

Glimpses of the future

img_20191202_11464701476857317.jpg

I didn’t get to ride on the Acela, but it was there when we got into the station.

On a recent trip up to D.C., my wife and I decided to leave the car at home. During our time here in Virginia, we’ve been to D.C. dozens of times for work or play, but we’ve always driven from our home to Alexandria or the District itself. Once there we would take the Metro or walk, but driving in NoVa and DC isn’t something I’d describe as fun. Now that we’re in an Amtrak town, however, it seemed like the perfect time to try traveling together without the car.

Walking a couple blocks to the bus station in Charlottesville, we were whisked away toward the Amtrak station. Minutes later, we got off the bus and walked over to the train station which included lugging our suitcase down a rather large staircase. This seems like one of the many places where Charlottesville’s non-motorized infrastructure could be improved, particularly for those with disabilities. I believe there is a way to get there without taking the staircase, but it requires going a much longer way from the bus stop.

As you may recall, I took my first Amtrak trip this spring, so I was surprised by the massive number of people at the station this go round. My wife suggested it was because of the holidays, which made sense with it being the Monday after Thanksgiving. In any case, the hundred or more people waiting on the train was a great difference from the twenty or so this spring.

Riding the train from Charlottesville to D.C. was uneventful, with only a short delay by Alexandria to wait on another Amtrak unloading their passengers at the station. I was able to doze while my wife worked on her laptop. The Northeast Regional seems to have slightly smaller seats than the Cardinal but is still vastly more comfortable than a plane ride.

After we got off the train at Union Station, we were able to hop the Red Line Metro to our hotel. After settling in, I walked down the street to get some food, and ran across oodles of bike and scooter sharing vehicles. In Charlottesville we have Lime and VeoRide scooters, but D.C. is a much bigger town, so while it’s no wonder they have more options, it was still staggering. I took a screenshot of my Transit app to show all the little dots by the Zoo Metro stop, but it doesn’t even show some of the options like the Revel moped rental.

A map is shown of the area around the Woodley Park/Zoo Metro stop in DC. There are a large number of dots indicating a high density of scooter, bike, and car shares available in the neighborhood.

Bike, scooter, and car shares available near Woodley Park

Having grown up in a relatively rural area of Missouri, I’m still amazed at all the different alternative modes of transit available. There, your transportation options were car, truck, or subsidized shuttle bus for certain subsets of the population. I’m really looking forward to a solarpunk future where it’s even easier to get around without a car. The group, Virginians for High Speed Rail, is currently working toward building out the rail network here in Virginia, and I know there are others calling for true investment in cross country high speed rail here in the United States. Since high-speed rail is less environmentally taxing than air travel, and generally faster for trips less than 430 miles, I think it’s a solid infrastructure investment the country should be seriously examining.

A map of VA showing current and future regional/long distance Amtrak routes. I believe this is aspirational, not planned.

Virginians For High-Speed Rail Map

Until then, I’ll have to be content with short haul rail service that is comparable to car travel times along the Eastern Seaboard and only do long distance rail when I can afford the time. That said, having access to D.C., New York City, and Boston without having to pay for parking in any of those cities or deal with the headaches of driving will give me a glimmer of the future we want.

Have you had any eye-opening experiences on public or shared transit? What changes would you make to build a better transportation network in your area? Let us know in the comments!

Bikes for a better tomorrow

gray commuter bike parked on road beside sea

Photo by Adam Dubec on Pexels.com

If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you’ll know I have a special place in my heart for the bicycle. I wasn’t really into biking as a kid since I grew up on a hilly farm without any safe paved areas nearby, but in college my roommate got me hooked when I joined him and a couple friends on a bike tour of the Katy Trail in Missouri.

I don’t tour anymore, but I do still use my bicycle for transportation, and it’s one of the reasons I moved close to downtown even though it required a bit of downsizing. Being able to run errands on foot or bike is a big plus for me, although I’ll admit that still having a car means I don’t bike or walk as much as I’d like.

For me, a solarpunk future is one where people have what they need a short walk or bike ride away. Biking, walking, and other forms of active transportation are a surefire way to reduce road congestion, clean the air, and reduce carbon emissions in our cities. There will likely be a place for the private automobile in rural areas for the foreseeable future, but the American Dream of suburbia is hopefully coming to a close. Don’t get me wrong, automobiles are a really impressive piece of technology, but as Peter Walker says in How Cycling Can Save the World, “they’re used far too often and frequently for the wrong sort of trips.”

This spring, I joined the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee to see what could be done to improve “alternative” modes of transport in the city. This lets me use all the years of reading transportation and urban planning blogs in a place where it might actually have an effect. While some cities like NYC push for lower speed limits and more protected bike lanes, most cities in the United States are still deep in the throes of car culture, a modern day death cult. The first step is to remove parking minimums from zoning codes. Donald Shoup estimates free parking amounts to a $500 billion subsidy for car owners, or 50 cents of public money for every dollar spent by the individual car owner. While some local business owners say that removing parking will kill their business, in most cases, better bicycling and pedestrian facilities actually are better for local businesses. If the parking doesn’t go in to begin with, then you don’t have to worry about the inevitable battle to remove it later.

photo of smiling woman in white dress and brown boots posing in multicolored glass house

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Pexels.com

Solarpunk is about building a truly equitable and sustainable future. Much of the current environmental conversation is about what you can’t do to make a sustainable future – you can’t drive a personal vehicle, you can’t take long showers, etc. For me, solarpunk paints a picture of what we gain when we do the right thing. Being more connected to your community and taking time to enjoy the little nooks and crannies that make our cities so interesting may sound quaint, but it can bring real happiness. Being trapped in a metal box breathing the noxious fumes while at a standstill does not spark joy.

In addition, the design choices that making cycling and walking better also improve accessibility for disabled individuals when coupled with ADA guidelines. A well designed sidewalk is pleasant to walk down but is also a lot better for someone in a wheelchair to navigate than the side of the road with a gravel or grass shoulder. There’s no shortage of concern trolls who crop up when people start suggesting that the current dominance of cars on the streets isn’t the natural order of things. There are people with some disabilities for whom personal automobiles are a great blessing. Many disabled individuals do cycle or catch a ride on a bike, and organizations like Wheels for Wellbeing or Cycling Without Age help cycling reach groups that are often disenfranchised by current transportation options. Moving people out of their cars and onto bikes can only help those who are dependent on vehicles for mobility.

At first, I assumed that even if we eliminated the need for private automobiles in city centers, we’d surely still need delivery trucks for goods. Surely we need to buy things, and all those things must be moved by a big truck! With the realization that many of the fatal vehicle/cyclist crashes in the last year have involved supposedly-professional drivers, I’m a lot less convinced. While some people think drones will be the delivery service of the future, I’m betting on the e-cargo bike. There’s still the potential for crashes, yes, but when the cargo bike is 10x lighter than a box truck and going at a lower speed, physics dictates you’ll have a lot fewer injuries and deaths from a cargo bike wreck. As anyone who bikes knows, UPS and FedEx are already used to being in the bike lane, so it will be a small adjustment for their drivers anyway. There’s also the possibility that there will be less consumption in a solarpunk future which would reduce the overall amount of deliveries necessary.

FedEx in the Bike Lane

FedEx truck parked in bike lane in Philadelphia by Phila. Bikes via a CC BY-SA 2.0

So, in the end, how do we get more people on bikes and reduce the number of single occupancy vehicle trips in our cities? One idea is to pay people to bike. This might seem weird at first, but when you take into account the public health benefits and cuts to both road maintenance and congestion created by pulling people out of cars it starts making sense. For something with precedent in the US, the government could offer tax credits for ebikes instead of electric cars. Ebikes have all the benefits of a regular bike, and for that $7,500 tax credit electric car buyers are getting, you could buy several entire ebikes. I suspect a lot of car owners would opt to use an ebike for the 48% of trips that are less than 3 miles when they see how much more fun it is to bike than drive. Long term, denser multiuse zoning and land use would do a great deal to make neighborhoods more walkable and bikeable.

Active transportation isn’t just better for your health and for reducing congestion in the city, it also helps improve the social fabric. It’s a lot easier to stop and talk to a friend or check out a new coffee shop when you’re on a bike or walking. I can recommend reading Just Ride for tips on the essentials of cycling for transport (hint – it’s not spandex). The more people riding, the safer the streets get for those of us using “alternate” transportation.

For more on bikes and urbanism, I’d suggest the War on Cars podcast and the book, Bikenomics. Bikenomics a really good book for interfacing with local business and government officials since economics is a more important driver of policy than human safety or happiness.

Do you cycle or walk for transportation? How does your area handle bicycle, pedestrian, and micromobility users?


Disclaimer: I may receive a small commission from affiliate links to books on this site.

Where we’re going, we don’t need roads

Something you might not notice right away in the solarpunk future is the lack of noise pollution. One of the reasons for this is, of course, the electrification of transport, but the second will be the significantly reduced dependence on personal automobiles for mobility.

From http://bcnecologia.net/sites/default/files/annex_5_charter_for_designing_new_urban_developments.pdf

Road Hierarchy in the new Superblock Model by BCN Ecologia

When Salvador Rueda first started studying how to reduce noise levels in his home of Barcelona, he quickly found that high-speed automobile traffic was responsible for the bulk of the noise pollution in his city. When you take into account that cars are responsible for the majority of child deaths in the US it becomes clear that designing cities for automobiles hasn’t left a lot of room for the humans that live there. Barcelona’s “superblock” program aims to restrict through traffic to a limited number of arteries and keep neighborhood traffic to a human scale 10 kph (6 mph) in shared streetscapes.

Continued pedestrian and bicyclist deaths in cities committed to Vision Zero has resulted in a call to ban cars from city centers. When coupled with the climate impacts of personal automobiles, regardless of their power source, it seems logical to restrict the usage of automobiles to city edges and rural areas.

Better public transit with reasonable service levels and level boarding like that seen in some street car projects would be a boon for residents while micromobility options like scooters, bicycles, and Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) could provide solutions for the “last mile.” Some NEVs have been designed specifically with wheelchair users in mind; however, it seems that they never quite made it to market. Introduction of these vehicles along with more prevalent accessible cycles can help us build a transportation system that is for people instead of cars.

To extend this human-scale vision of the city further, we may one day not need roads at all. Paolo Soleri felt roads separated people and designed his living laboratory in the Sonoran Desert to exclude them. Arcosanti is the world’s first arcology, or architecture designed around the idea that a city is it’s own ecological system. Passive energy management and high density mean that residents can spend more time living instead of working to cover mundane expenses like unnecessarily large heating or cooling bills. As a prototype, Arcosanti doesn’t seem particularly accessible, but I believe future arcologies or acology-minded developments should be able to incorporate the appropriate infrastructure without issue.

Despite decades of poor planning and squandered resources, I have hope that our public transit and transportation infrastructure are on the cusp of a renaissance. Even here in Charlottesville, we’re taking a serious look at building complete streets and revitalizing our public transit system. As we deal with rolling back the poor planning decisions of the 20th Century, we can build a more inclusive, healthier, and more pleasant transportation experience for our cities. One of the key components of this will be relegating the automobile to a support role in our society instead of the star of the show.

Is your locality implementing any changes to improve transportation for humans over personal vehicles? Do you have a shiny new streetcar or are you a resident of one of the few enclaves of car free life left in the world? Let us know below!

 

 

 

 

A Better Way to Pay

dollar-currency-money-us-dollar-47344.jpeg

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As Adam Flynn said back in 2014, solarpunk takes infrastructure as a form of resistance. One of the biggest pieces of infrastructure that people interact with on a daily basis is payment systems. Payments aren’t as visible roads, or as tangible as housing, but decentralized, democratic payments are an important part of ensuring a brighter future.

We’re at a turning point for money. Since the middle ages, money has been controlled by the nation-state through fiat currency. The first experiments with digital-first money started in the 1980s, and we have seen an explosion in the availability of cryptocurrencies since the Bitcoin whitepaper was released in 2009. While Bitcoin hasn’t lived up to its original goal of being a replacement for fiat currency, it did revolt against the idea that only the state can create money.

Nation-states are now looking into developing crypto-fiat hybrids, and large corporate actors like Facebook are developing their own cryptocurrencies as well. The additional pressure of countries considering bans on cryptocurrencies that shield user identities makes me feel that governments see the danger that a truly decentralized monetary system would pose to their monopoly on power.

Brett Scott at Roar wrote about gentrification of payments from centralized issuers, “Put bluntly, digital payment facilitates a vast new frontier of financial surveillance and control, while also exposing users to new risks not present in the cash infrastructure.” He points out that the current trend for countries to emphasize digital (fiat) money over cash puts people’s finances increasingly into the hands of a small number of banks and state actors.

four assorted cryptocurrency coins

Photo by Worldspectrum on Pexels.com

I’ve previously touched on the subject of designing appropriate incentives into a monetary system, but for now I’m going to focus on how true digital cash could work. Bitcoin is the opposite of private since every transaction ever made with Bitcoin is recorded to its public ledger. Privacy coins allow for transactions to remain private by being recorded to the blockchain with the details obfuscated to all but those who performed the transaction. This has major benefits, particularly for the fungibility of a currency, which is a fancy way of saying that every unit of the money is created equal. For completely public blockchains like Bitcoin, certain Bitcoins may become “stained” due to their use in criminal activities in the past, meaning they may become harder to trade or spend than a “clean” Bitcoin. There is no such distinction between the status of a specific unit of Monero, for instance, since its past is unknown. The MimbleWimble protocol is a new blockchain which greatly simplifies the privacy aspects of a blockchain resulting in less power and data consumption.

The problem with most cryptocurrencies right now, however, is that they typically use what is called Proof of Work to verify transactions on the chain. Proof of Work burns large amounts of energy in an effort to “prove” the validity of the blockchain. Various other schemes have been developed to secure blockchain networks including Proof of Stake, Delegated Proof of Stake, and Proof of Cooperation. Proof of Cooperation was developed for FairCoin to enable a less energy-intensive verification method for blockchains. I think that a Proof of Cooperation-based MimbleWimble coin could provide the privacy and lower energy consumption that would be desirable for digital cash.

business bank chip credit card

Photo by Dom J on Pexels.com

This digital cash would restore the peer-to-peer nature of cash and avoid the data-mining perils of current digital payment companies like Visa or PayPal. It is still dependent on computing technology to work, which makes me feel like it would be less inclusive than actual cash. In an increasingly digital-first world, however, thoughtfully-designed cryptocurrencies will be more inclusive than the options designed by corporations or governments. For more on the subject of post-capitalist money, check out In each other we trust: coining alternatives to capitalism by Jerome Roos.

Money is often considered a taboo subject, but feel free to let us know your thoughts below. How do you think a separation of money and state could be liberating?

Tidalpunk, logistics, and degrowth

Grist recently ran an article about a Costa Rican project to build a carbon neutral shipping fleet using traditional wooden boat building techniques including sails as the primary means of propulsion. Maria Gallucci writes that the worldwide commercial shipping industry moves 10.7 billion tonnes of material every year, predominantly by diesel powered megaships.

This seems particularly problematic when we look at the 262 million tonnes of municipal waste generated in the US alone every year. The article about the Costa Rican fleet said sailing vessels wouldn’t be able to make up a large proportion of the shipping fleet, but the question I had was, “Do we really need to be shipping this much stuff?”

While capitalism is based on unending, cancerous growth, there is a growing community of people around the world investigating how dialing back the economy could be better for people and the planet. When coupled with a circular economy, the degrowth movement points toward a brighter, greener future like that envisioned in solarpunk. Decentralized, local production of goods using recycled technical and biological nutrients would lead to a more resilient and less energy-intensive supply chain.

Some front-line communities are already leading the charge against climate change by developing solutions that are much more relevant to their local environment than the one-size-fits-all techno-solutionism often argued for in the US and other western countries.

What do you think? Should we just find “sustainable” ways to keep consumption at it’s current levels, or should we reevaluate our relationships with material goods? Let us know below!

Rethinking batteries

close up photo of batteries

Photo by Hilary Halliwell on Pexels.com

As an engineer, I’m always thinking of how to make the objects around me work better. After rereading Cradle to Cradle this year, I’ve also been considering how to balance the needs of the present and the end of an object’s life.

When I was an undergrad, I did research in energy materials, so my interest was piqued when I saw the Volta Battery concept by Koraldo Kajanaku that won the Cradle to Cradle Product Design Challenge. Designed to be easily disassembled and made with materials that can easily be returned to technical or biological cycles, the battery is an excellent example of everyday objects that could be made better through thoughtful design.

The current ways in which we build batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines can’t get us all the way to a 100% renewable, solarpunk future. Elements such as the lithium used in cellphone batteries are rare and have some hurdles to true recyclability. Lead acid batteries, while more easily recycled, contain materials that are very hazardous to human health when not properly contained. Lithium batteries are an amazing technology, but we should be finding more readily recyclable alternatives for applications that don’t absolutely require the high energy density that a lithium chemistry affords. Aluminum, iron, nickel, and zinc could use a little more love when it comes to research and development. Nickel iron cells, for example, are likely the most robust chemistry available. They are quite heavy at the moment, but they might be one of the best options for grid backups since they don’t require the coddling that other technologies do. For the tidalpunks out there, you might want to check out ocean batteries.

More diversity of battery chemistries could lead to more energy democracy in energy storage. Communities could build the chemistry that uses the most local resources to back up their renewables. When paired with more sustainably designed windmills or solar thermal plants, we could do a lot more with a lot fewer rare earth minerals. Mechanical approaches to energy storage are also an attractive option. As is often the refrain with sustainable design, there is no silver bullet, we need many different solutions to fit the many different use-cases in existence. The 20th century was concerned with trying to shoehorn all our problems into a fossil fuel-shaped hole. The 21st will be defined by a diverse and beautiful ecosystem of solutions.

Is there an everyday object that you wish was designed more thoughtfully? Let us know below!

Keeping the end in sight

adult background ball shaped blur

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I previously mentioned that I sometimes struggle with over-researching a topic, and I found myself doing that again this week with political theory. I keep seeing memes attacking people who critique capitalism or who think that socialism might be the answer, and I got bogged down reading dozens of articles from a variety of political angles on the subject arguing semantics about “correct” definitions of capitalism or socialism.

I rewrote a political theory post from this research several times, and still doesn’t quite sit right with me. I think this is because, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. All the arguments over this or that political theory don’t really have much impact on real life. One of the critiques that is repeatedly leveled at solarpunk is that it isn’t practical, and navel-gazing about political theory certainly doesn’t have much real world impact. I’m not going to say that any academic pursuit is a waste of time, but for me, I have spent far too much time in headspace and not enough in the real world.

A comic I blatantly stole from the internet. I can't read the signature, so if it's yours I can take it down if you don't like it here.

A comic I blatantly stole from the internet. I can’t read the signature, so if it’s yours I can take it down if you don’t like it here.

People from all over the political spectrum recognize that there are significant problems with most of Western society. I’m particularly focused on the US because that’s where I live, but I suspect many of these issues exist to some extent in other countries as well. Why are people dying because they can’t afford medication in the same country that has people so rich they don’t know what to do with their money? People want their families to be safe, to have enough food to eat, and to have some leisure time. I think this is something everyone can agree on, but the details can be an understandable point of contention. The problem becomes when we start identifying people by labels instead of other human beings. It’s not acceptable to compromise with “those people,” but if we just would pack these increasingly meaningless labels away we might actually make some progress on the problems that face us.

People aren’t happy with the state of healthcare in the US. No one wants to see their parks full of trash and pollution. Anyone will balk at a pipeline if it’s going to be going through their own property. It’s time we stop getting hung up on labels and work together on solutions. If nothing else, let’s decide to table the debate on a national level and help states be the “Laboratories for Democracy” and let them try different approaches without trying to force everyone to do the same thing.

The reticence of the federal government to make a firm decision that would guide the lives of 327 million people is understandable, so it’s time to flex the 10th Amendment and give the states some of their money back to tackle the problems on their own terms. I think that’s something we can all agree on.


For my part, I’m trying to become more active in my own community by joining the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Council (BPAC) to be a part of the decision making process with regards to making Charlottesville more friendly to non-auto forms of transit.

Some more resources to check out if you think there should be more experimentation with public policy include Symbiosis, Vox’s The Impact podcast, Strong Towns, and The Institute for Local Self-Reliance. What are some of the other ways we can make change real instead of just talking about it? Let us know below!

Riding the rails

Picture of an Amtrak train car; single deck; number 25051

One of the coach cars from the Cardinal

I recently went on a trip to Missouri, and since flying or riding the train would cost the same amount, I decided to do the solarpunk thing and try train. I’d only ever gone on short, touristy train rides before, so this was my first time evaluating rail as a long-distance travel option. While the exact values will vary based on model, train travel is typically regarded as less carbon intensive than flying or taking a single-occupant passenger car.

Any readers from Europe will likely be appalled at the poor state of rail travel in the US, but I think that for anyone with the time, rail travel is much nicer than taking a plane. Sure it takes a lot longer, but the seats are much bigger, the luggage restrictions are very generous, and you avoid federal employees invading your personal space.

An abandoned train - An engine from the New York Central line and two passenger cars

An abandoned train on a siding we passed

I rode two different lines, The Cardinal and The Southwest Chief. The Cardinal was a lot smaller train, but the overhead bins were larger than those on The Southwest Chief. This was likely because the Southwest Chief’s double-decker cars had a large baggage area on the lower level of the train. There is a smaller baggage area at the back of the coach cars on The Cardinal.

The interior of an Amtrak observation car. Sideways seats face large floor-to-ceiling windows

An Amtrak observation car featuring large windows

There was a cafe car on both trains, and the Southwest Chief also had observation and dining cars. Since I’m cheap, I brought my own snacks and water, but the food is there if you don’t bring your own. The ride is sometimes bumpy, but you don’t have to worry about your drink or food flying up unexpectedly like you might with a flight.

There are some downsides, of course. Number one is that you still have small, airplane-style bathrooms and you’ll almost certainly have to visit them if you’re going any appreciable distance. There’s also a relative dearth of destinations when compared to air travel. As most people fly to get from place to place these days, Amtrak can only support so many routes. If I were writing this article fifty years ago, then I would likely have a different story to tell.

A double-decker Amtrak Superliner car; windows dot the top deck of the car while the bottom features an entry hatch and ventillation grates

A double-decker Amtrak Superliner car

Another con is the occasional smoke breaks where people can get off the train and get their fix. The ventilation aboard the trains seems sufficient, but in the first few minutes following a smoke break I was wishing I could crack the window. Luckily, I wasn’t seated too closely to any smoking passengers, and the smell quickly dissipated.

Photo showing the large, open Grand Hall of Chicago's Union Station including two golden, greco-roman statues guarding the entrance to the train departure area

Chicago’s Union Station is fancy

I don’t know if traveling via rail rises to the level of luxurious (it might in the sleeping cars, which are available on both trains I took), but it is certainly more pleasurable than any of my previous travels by plane. For shorter trips (KC to Chicago for example) it can even be faster than driving since you avoid all that mucking about in city traffic. If you are planning a trip in the future, consider seeing if the train can get you there. It’s not an option we think of here in the States, but I’m glad I took a chance on it.

Have you traveled by rail in the US or abroad? What’s the train like in your area?

What is energy democracy?

At first glance, energy democracy is a funny term. Are we worried about a coalition of coal and natural gas blocking amendments to a bill from wind and solar? Is nuclear over in the corner putting forth reasonable proposals while everyone backs away slowly because of rumors regarding her volatile temper?

Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0

Solar Farm by Michael Mees via a CC BY 2.0

Energy democracy is actually about bringing self-determination of communities back to energy generation, storage, and distribution. Not that long ago, most of society ran on locally-sourced energy. The bulk of this was in the form of windmills, water wheels, and wood-burning fires. As fossil fuels took the stage during the industrial revolution, energy supply and demand became estranged. Economies of scale for fossil fuel-based energy generation led to the creation of large power plants that supply power over an interconnected grid.

The 21st Century has seen the return of distributed energy sources. While solar and wind get the headlines, small modular reactors (SMRs), in-stream hydro, tidal, geothermal, and other distributed energy sources are showing promise as well. While the growth of these distributed generation technologies is good for decentralized solarpunk communities, it creates a point of friction with the existing centralized power grid. This is why when incumbent utilities do support renewables, they still want to build large, utility-scale projects. Nevada has had the most public battle over net metering in recent years, but many utilities have tried to suppress energy decentralization by pressuring legislators. In states like Virginia, where two companies have a monopoly on 80% of the energy market, it’s easy to see where problems might arise.

panoramic shot of sky

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There are some technical problems with energy decentralization which stem from the centralized past of the grid. As David Roberts explains at Vox, the grid was designed for one-way power flows from generation to distribution to end user. Solar, wind, and other distributed energy sources upend this model, sending power from the end-of-the-line back into the grid. There are several possible ways to overcome these difficulties ranging from going off-grid completely to piping every single generation source back into one giant grid managed by a central authority. For a solarpunk future, one possible option is the “decentralized, layered-decomposition optimization structure.” In this arrangement, the responsibilities of generation sources are held locally, but communities can still exchange power on an overarching, interconnected grid.

In some communities, such as Boulder, CO, the people have decided to municipalize their energy grid. Putting the grid into public hands makes it easier to align incentives between homeowners with rooftop solar, community-based generation projects, and the needs of all the users on the grid. Utility monopolies have to maximize profit and maintain the status quo. Energy democracy brings the power to the people, who can build a grid that uses distributed generation for a more robust, environmentally friendly, and healthy grid. The most extreme example of calls for energy democracy at the moment is the suggestion of a public takeover of PG&E. For more on areas that are flexing their energy democracy muscles, check out the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Power Map.

Do you have any energy democracy projects in your area? Let us know how your communities are fighting monopoly power and bringing clean, distributed power to the people.

Symbiosis

Decentralization of power, both political and electrical, is one of the core tenets of solarpunk. As the meme says, we’ve had the technology to transition to a decentralized, clean economy for a long time. Centralization of political power controlled by centralized corporate interests has been the chief hurdle to climate action.

Symbiosis logo - it looks like a spindly sea creature (anenome?) with the word "symbiosis" written next to it

Symbiosis is a new grassroots organization in the United States dedicated to building direct democracy to address climate change and social inequities. As an offshoot of the Social Ecology Institute, the underlying philosophy of the movement is that the broken nature of human interaction has let to our broken environment.

In order to make a concerted effort against the established corporate and federal concentrations of power, Symbiosis is positioning itself as an umbrella organization to help coordinate action between municipalists, environmentalists, and post-capitalists across North America.

As has become increasingly apparent, single-issue action has been ineffective at moving the needle toward a climate solution. Only when we build a coalition of our allies can we challenge the status quo.

There is a congress in the works for September 2019 to bring everyone together to begin the work of building communities and systems for the post-capitalist future. For more information about Symbiosis, visit https://www.symbiosis-revolution.org/.


Disclaimer: I am involved with Symbiosis, but do not speak for them in any capacity. This is my interpretation of the group based on a short time of involvement.